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SCIENCE

Robot-building 12-year-olds on a mission to encourage others

Samantha Sedran and Katrina Usmar are trying various approaches to get other girls to join them in the field

Katrina Usmar, left, and Samantha Sedran, students from St. Clement’s School in Toronto, work on their robot Hexie in preparation for the upcoming Vex IQ Challenge Ringmaster.

"She's a nightmare," says Samantha Sedran, gazing at her creation with the mix of love and frustration familiar to every new parent. Like most offspring, this one is endearing, vexing, and stubbornly resistant to correction. Except that there's something unusual here: Samantha is 12, and this offspring has a drivetrain, which is coming apart.

"We know we'll be able to fix her," says Samantha. "She just needs a bit more work.

Samantha's friend and teammate, Katrina Usmar, leans over the laptop to peer at the drivetrain of the robot they have designed and built together. "Hexie is a huge amount of pressure," Katrina says. "But she's also so much fun to be around."

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Hexie is Samantha and Katrina's baby. The two 12-year-old Grade 7 students have spent the past four months building the VEX robot, and preparing her for competitions that begin in Toronto on Saturday. At the moment, the girls have two goals: First, to make Hexie battle-ready for the arena; second, to fundraise enough money to send 15 other girls to the robotics camp where they first learned their love of programming and building.

At the moment, in the manner of a prizefighter gone slightly to seed, Hexie is too large for the competition. She is only the size of the proverbial breadbox – a breadbox on wheels – but the girls still need to shave five centimetres off one of her dimensions before the regional competitions. She needs to be smaller, but still agile and powerful enough for the girls to drive using a controller. Her ultimate challenge, in a game called Ringmaster, is to put rings on poles in a small playing area.

Samantha (chief builder) and Katrina (chief programmer) put their heads together to consult over the question of the drivetrain. They are the only girls in this room at Crescent School, an affluent private boys' school in North Toronto. Around them are dozens of boys in various stages of joy and frustration over their own robots. The boys are loud – middle-school loud. One overenthusiastic kid peels his fingernail back. A teacher hauls him away to administer first aid.

The girls were invited to join the after-school robotics program at Crescent, which their brothers attend. St. Clement's, the private girls' school they go to, uses a different robotics platform, First Lego League, which they clearly find inferior (not that they'd ever put it quite so baldly).

Hexie has already gone through 30 different design iterations.

Amid the mayhem, Katrina and Samantha are quietly intent on Hexie. They are, it's fair to say, on a mission. Not just because they're the only girls' team among 10 boys' teams, but because they'd like other girls to join them. They have a Go Fund Me campaign with the goal of raising $8,000 to send girls, whose families might not otherwise be able to afford it, to robotics summer camp; they plan to raise half the money themselves, by holding bake sales and teaching robotics.

Last year, the girls taught robotics to elementary students at Oakridge Junior Public School in suburban Toronto and used the cash they made to send one girl to Bot Camp, which costs more than $500 a week. In a video Katrina and Samantha made to support their fundraising efforts, they outline their goal: "We will make STEM real and fun for the woman leaders of the future," they said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

"We think it's important to get girls young because the brain grows most in the first decade of your life, so you learn more then," says Samantha. Katrina chimes in, "Also when you're young, you're carefree, you don't care about the old stereotype like 'You should stay in the kitchen.'"

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While no one has specifically told them to stay in the kitchen, they have absorbed – and defiantly rejected – the idea that robotics is a boys' club. Samantha has always built: As a little girl, she constructed castles made of Dixie cups; now, when not working on Hexie, she glue-guns houses for toy monkeys. Katrina has always loved computers, and coding, and drawing fantastical creatures. Their prodigious output may be related to the fact that neither one owns a cellphone, or uses social media.

But first, Hexie. The robot has already gone through 30 design iterations, and there will be more. As well as designing a bot that can lift and place precisely, the team (officially SK Creations) needs to create a separate research project. Last year, they made it to the VEX Robotics world championship in Kentucky ("80 per cent boys," says Samantha), accompanied by their bot Bobblehead. They had been building robots for only a few months.

Katrina, left, and Samantha put the finishing touches on their robot, Hexie. The two 12-year-old Grade 7 students have spent the past four months building the VEX robot.

In each round of the competition, the girls must drive the robot, and they must also program it to drive itself. Equally important, they've been working on their research project – a robotic hand to help people with arthritis perform tricky tasks such as opening jars.

"This is what we want to do in the future," says Katrina. "To help out with problems like this, whether it's climate change or disease."

The girls' mentor is Tony Lam, a 24-year-old robotics teacher at Crescent School. Part of his job, he says, is encouraging girls to take part in what is still a very male-dominated culture.

"The things that got these girls interested was getting their hands dirty," Mr. Lam says. "You have to have them building, and getting the hands-on experience. We need to start investing more money in this technology. Because this is where the jobs are going to be in the future."

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There are various initiatives at all stages to encourage more women to enter the lucrative STEM professions. But, as a recent Globe and Mail story pointed out, the way to best achieve this may be through very early intervention. Ismael Mourifié, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, has conducted research showing that elementary school is the best place to encourage girls' interest in math and science.

"If gender profiling starts very early, by the time young women reach high school, they are not good in STEM," he told The Globe's Simona Chiose. "Instead, maybe intervene in primary school and try to design more motivations to go into those fields."

Early intervention is what Katrina and Samantha are all about, though they might not put it quite that way. Their plans include teaching kids in Grades 1, 2 and 3 about the software and gear ratios that go into making a successful robot – by putting robots in their hands.

As they turn back to Hexie and her problematic bits, Katrina sits down in front of her laptop. "We know we're lucky," she says. "Not everyone has access to robotics. But everyone should."

"Especially girls," says Samantha. "Girl power."

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